UP, OR ON THE ROCKS?
CANADIAN, RYE AND BLENDED — THESE NORTH AMERICAN WHISKIES ARE FIGHTING FOR RESPECT AND MARKET SHARE.
While bourbon has been recently riding the rapids of consumer rediscovery, the other North American whiskeys–blended, Canadian and rye–are weathering tougher times.
Like most “brown spirits,” these categories have suffered in the 1990s as consumers seem to have fled to the new vodkas and tequilas that have flooded the market. But while sales have continued a decade-long slide, North American brown spirits still grab a substantial part of the American liquor dollar.
Of the top 21 distilled spirit brands as tracked by Adams Business Media, six are Canadian (more than any other single category) and one, 7 Crown, is a blended American whiskey. Sales of such Canadian whiskys as Crown Royal, Lord Calvert, Seagram’s VO and others are up regionally–in Delaware, Missouri and Minnesota–by about 5%, according to Adams statistics, and up significantly in New York, Mississippi, South Dakota and Utah.
Their strength, at least in part, resides in their tradition. While to younger drinkers, they may be dismissed as “my father’s drink,” for more experienced consumers they carry the glow of tradition. These mainstays have recently benefited from the revitalization of the classic cocktails–primarily Old-Fashioneds and Manhattans.
“I would say blended Canadian whisky is still a very popular drink,” notes Jason Lapin, general manager for New York’s Club Macanudo. “I do all the ordering, so I know what people are drinking. VO and Canadian Club still sell very well.”
He views Canadian whisky as “one of those stock drinks in some people’s repertoire. I dare say there are a few women drinking Canadian whisky, too.” Drinks such as Canadian Club and soda and the Seven and Seven, he adds, “are just classic drinks. They’re right in there with things like bourbon and ginger ale, Scotch and soda and vodka tonics. I think they’re part of the mainstay, mixed drink repertoire that people have in their vocabularies.”
“I think for mixed drinks Canadian whisky has always held its own. When you talk about up drinks and straight spirits, then it tails off; they haven’t captured that market. Where somebody might have bourbon neat or with an ice cube or Scotch on the rocks or straight, I don’t see people ordering Canadian whiskys that way. And I know that they’re trying to break into that market because I see some new single barrel Canadian whiskys, and I have just not jumped on with that yet. I plan to, though.”
But in some parts of the country, operators have built just the sort of Canadian business Lapin hasn’t been able to create in New York. Clemens Georg, owner/manager at the Chinook Tavern, Denver, CO, says the appeal for customers who drink Canadian neat is the distinctive flavor. “I think it’s just the fact that it has sort of a sweet flavor versus Scotch’s peaty flavor. That’s what people like.”
He features the whiskeys prominently on Chinook’s backbar, splitting space with and getting the same respect as single malt Scotches.
The Chinook Tavern is winning a huge following in the Rockies, with its “rollicking” Bavarian-Colorado atmosphere, complete with a 25-seat horseshoe-shaped maple bar. The average age of the Chinook bar customer skews high, from 45 to 55, Georg notes, and they generally take their whiskey straight or on the rocks, not with mixers. “Most people like it just straight because it is a pretty nice product. Straight, smooth whiskey is great.”
Georg advises his colleagues around the country to prominently feature Canadians “and introduce people to them. I like to put the bottle in front of them and give them a little taste of it, just straight, because some of them are so smooth and sweet I always say they taste like butterscotch. That’s the way to get them to try it, and I guarantee you, they’ll be back.”
Chinook servers are also encouraged to spread the word. Each is given a list of currently featured single malts, small batch bourbons and all whiskeys. “They present them before or after dinner, depending on what people are looking for, and I’m always willing to give people a sample. We have small shot glasses for that.”
Promotions involving these varieties of whiskey don’t take place often, Georg notes, but no matter. “We move them anyway. We have a real warm atmosphere. It’s all wood and candles on the bar, so it sort of lends itself to that wintry feel.”
Phil Barker, head bartender at the 250-seat Nye’s Polonaise Room in Minneapolis, MN, agrees with Georg’s hand-sell approach. His crowd drinks a lot of Canadian whisky, and sales are helped by gentle recommendations from servers, who may ask, “Would you like to try something a little lighter? Or with a different taste completely?” Many newer drinkers, says Barker, who has been at the restaurant for 29 years, will try bourbon first and switch to a Canadian.
While these heartland operations are able to move their Canadian spirits neat, in the more urban markets, cocktails are king. Consultant Bill McLaughlin, president of McLaughlin & Associates, Chicago, sees the classic cocktails as “probably the logical avenue” through which to successfully market straight, blended, rye and Canadian whiskeys. Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, and “some type of proprietary cocktail” would be the best bets in his opinion.
Club Macanudo patrons, an upscale, 35- to 55-year-old crowd, regularly drink Manhattans, Old Fashioneds and Canadian whisky “in blended drinks, always with soda or 7 Up. People who drink VO’s and Seven and Sevens find them sweet, very easy to drink liquors. You mix it with a little soda or ginger ale you and put those down real quick,” says gm Lapin.
David Rhoring, general manager and part owner of Duggan’s in Atlanta, GA, agrees traditional cocktails and mixed drinks offer the best opportunity for non-bourbon North American whiskies. “It surprises me. You have a brand like Crown Royal and they’re mixing it with Coca-Cola. And it’s a great thing for me to see, the fact that people are actually using Coca-Cola as a mixer on occasion, because you see they’re drinking wisely. They’re not going to pound a shot back and then jump in the car and just zip off. They’re going to have Crown and Coke with a meal.”
Rohring sees a seasonal aspect to the sale of these whiskies, with sales up during fall and winter. “People are drinking the vodkas and gins and lighter-style drinks in the summertime.”
Lapin agrees. “I think they fall in with the rest of the whiskies. You see people drinking more dark liquor in the winter and gin and vodka are more summertime drinks.” Interestingly, the seasonal factor goes out the window at New York City’s famed ’21’ Club by nature of the atmosphere. “It’s all dark wood paneling and everything,” says beverage manager Chris Shipley. As a result, drink choice is “less driven by seasonal things. If you had a nice airy restaurant where the sunlight came in and you opened the doors when it’s nice out, you would see a big shift. But we don’t ever really see an increase of, say, white wine over red wine here because it’s always the same season inside this restaurant.”
Duggan’s does “real strong” business with Crown Royal, as well as other major name brand spirits. Guests, he says, are “going to go to these popular name brands, and they’re going to hold onto them, and that’s going to be their main product that they’re going to order. For us, Crown Royal is a major call brand.” Indeed, lots of customers opt for upscale drinks on the weekend. “On Friday nights people are going to spend that extra couple of dollars and get a Crown and Coke instead of maybe just a whisky and Coke.” The 15-year-old restaurant seats 500, including an outdoor patio, and has an average per-person check of about $17.
The ’21’ Club sells “a lot” of the whiskeys, according to Shipley, especially compared to the trendy downtown NYC spot Odeon. When he worked there, he seldom saw customers order Canadian whisky. “Here at ’21,’ the clientele is older, and so you have Manhattans made with rye or blended whisky as opposed to bourbon. Downtown is where you’re more likely to see a Manhattan made with bourbon.”
Shipley concedes that the growth in boutique bourbons has “kind of taken away from that other whiskey category. You’ve got Scotch eating away at one end and the bourbons eating away at the other.” Outside of New York City, however, in areas like the Midwest, “you’re going to see a huge increase in that category,” he says. “They’re less inundated with advertising about fancy new niche beverages.”
The power of geography should not be minimized. Pat McGeehan, a manager at the popular Round Robin Bar in Washington, DC, says that while his local regulars think of DC as the south — and hence expect bourbon at all time in Manhattans and other mixed drinks — visitors are known to ask for Canadian whiskys.
“If we have a lot of people in from the upper peninsula in Michigan, Minnesota, they ask for them. I find it kind of an area thing. The people form the upper Midwest drink a lot more Canadian whisky and American whiskey.”
While rye has diappeared from may back bars and is usually replaced in Manhattans by bourbon, there are still three well-known name brands distilled–Jim Beam Rye, Old Overholt and Wild Turkey Rye. And some distillers are plugging away at the category–J. P. Van Winkle makes a 12-year-old 90-proof (Old Rip Van Winkle Old Time Rye) and a 13-year-old 95.6- proof (Van Winkle family Reserve Rye) and Anchor Brewery owner Fritz Maytag is working on developing a variety of oak-aged whiskeys to expand his own Old Portrero Single Malt Rye Whiskey.
’21’ carries a 100% rye whiskey made from a recipe that dates back to pre-Revolutionary times, says Shipley, who calls it “glorious stuff. We carry it and we treat it like a single malt Scotch or a small-batch bourbon. We recommend it virtually as an after-dinner drink.” It is being consumed by what he calls “the adventuresome crowd.
“It’s the same people who are drinking the single malts and the small batch bourbons,” he notes. “It’s the younger, affluent drinking crowd that has this disposable income. Instead of drinking as in the mid-’80s, when everyone just kind of drank a lot, now people are drinking less, but they’re spending more money on it.”
Rye takes “a bit of a hand sell. You have to go to people and say, ‘Well, have you tried this instead of your single malt?’ And yes, it’s had quite a good reception.” Better known whiskeys require little if any handsell, he points out. “People have been drinking them for 100 years. They will say, ‘This is what my father taught me how to drink, so this is what I’m drinking.’ It’s a very tradition-driven thing.”
“It’s a shame that there isn’t more activity with rye whiskey. It’s a beautiful whiskey. It has similarities to bourbon but it’s not quite as sweet. It’s a wonderful product in its unadulterated form.” Still, he adds, it’s got to be enjoyed straight. “You couldn’t really make a cocktail out of it, in the same way you couldn’t really make a Rob Roy out of Macallan, for example.”
American blended whiskey is composed of brands which have been created by carefully blending straight whiskies with grain spirits. At one time, this category, which didn’t exist prior to Prohibition, accounted for about half the domestically-produced whiskey consumed in this country. The category’s share of the total market has been steadily eroding over the past 25 years, but it remains significant nevertheless, primarily due to its two biggest brands–Seagram’s 7 Crown (2.8 million cases) and Kessler (958,000 cases).
When considering blended whiskies, it’s important to remember that they are built to order. The straight whiskies that form their backbone are distilled and aged to take a planned part in the blend. Every blend contains a number of straight whiskies in its formula.
By law, a blended whiskey must contain a minimum of 20% straight whiskey. A premium brand may contain as many as 75 different straight whiskies and grain neutral spirits. The purpose of blending is to create a balanced, light-bodied whiskey, with a richness in taste and an individual character of its own. Balance is achieved because the blending art assembles a variety of elements into a unique and distinctive product. Another hallmark of blended whiskies is their consistency of taste.–HR
Canada’s whisky heritage, like in the US, descends from the early settlers from Scotland and Ireland, who continued their long-standing tradition of creating “home-brewed” spirits in their new land. This historical connection to Scotland helps explain why Canadians spell whisky in the Scotch fashion, without an “e” (When speaking of spirits from the U.S. or Ireland, the spelling “whiskey” is used.)
Interestingly, the Canadian government does not mandate a specific grain mixture, proof level for distillation or type of barrel for storage, preferring to let each individual distiller make those decisions. The US government is another story, however. According to US federal regulations, Canadian whisky must be produced in Canada according to that country’s laws, must contain no distilled spirits less than three years of age and must be a blend. Canadian law simply states that the whisky must be produced from cereal grain.
In compliance with that regulation, Canadian whisky may be distilled from a fermented mash of wheat, corn, rye and/or barley. A common misconception about Canadian whiskies, and American blended whiskies for that matter, is that they are rye whiskies. In reality, however, Canadian distillers use seven times more corn than other grains. But because Canadian distillers have been allowed to develop their own methods, each distiller’s recipe calls for different amounts of the individual grains with the exact proportions kept as closely guarded secrets. (Rye whiskey must, by law, be made with at least 51% rye. Straight rye comes from a single distiller; blended rye combines straight ryes.)
All Canadian whisky must be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years, although most spend from six to eight years in the barrel. After aging, the whisky is dumped into huge blending vats, the stage at which the art of the blender is put to the test. One of the many tricks of the blender’s trade is to use whiskies of various ages in order to produce a consistent blend from year to year (the bottle label can only carry the age statement of the youngest spirit used). That’s why a bottle of Canadian whisky produced today is likely to have the same taste profile as a bottle of the same brand purchased 10, 20 or more years ago. After blending, the whisky is returned to barrels to allow the newly combined whiskies to marry. Only then is it bottled and sold.
As a rule, Canadian whiskys are light-bodied, slightly pale and have a reputation for being mellow. What many people don’t realize is how big the Canadian category is. Accounting for 11.5% of all distilled spirits consumption, Canadian whisky trails only vodka in terms of its share of the market.
According to U.S. law, Canadian whisky must be a product of Canada. It is also further classified as either bulk or bottled in Canada. Bulk whisky, which is also called U.S. bottled, is shipped to this country in barrels. It is then bottled at U.S. plants by the marketers of the various brands. With few exceptions, these U.S. bottled brands have traditionally been 80 proof products and are targeted to compete with blended American whiskeys and straight bourbons. More than half the Canadian whisky consumed in the U.S. is bottled in this country.
Canadian whisky bottled in the country of origin is marketed at a higher price than the bulk brands and carries more of the cachet associated with fine imported whiskies. These brands tend to be aged longer and are blends of the best available spirits. Although once bottled at 86.8 proof, almost all bottled-in-Canada brands are now 80 proof (40% alcohol).
Coming soon are some new Canadians, as Canadian Club expands into a 10 year-old, a sherry cask aged and a 100 proof variety. And there may be more in the wings; Preiss Imports is looking to develop a A.H. Hirsch Single Cask Canadian, and some high-profile Canadians not yet available in the US are massing at the border.